Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Second Mountain: The moral peril in the meritocratic race

By David Brooks, Published The Straits Times, 9 Apr 2019

Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb - I'm going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness.

People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They're trying to win the victories the ego enjoys.

These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfilment will follow.

But in the lives of the people I'm talking about - the ones I really admire - something happened that interrupted the linear existence they had imagined for themselves. Something happened that exposed the problem with living according to individualistic, meritocratic values.

Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril.

Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn't part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.

Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open.

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realise that success won't fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realise how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is okay; they're not financially destroyed; they're about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed.

They realise that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.

So how does moral renewal happen? How do you move from a life based on bad values to a life based on better ones?

First, there has to be a period of solitude, in the wilderness, where self-reflection can occur.

"What happens when a 'gifted child' finds himself in a wilderness where he's stripped away of any way of proving his worth?" Belden Lane asks in Backpacking With The Saints.

What happens where there is no audience, nothing he can achieve? He crumbles. The ego dissolves. "Only then is he able to be loved."

That's the key point here. The self-centred voice of the ego has to be quieted before a person is capable of freely giving and receiving love.

Then there is contact with the heart and soul - through prayer, meditation, writing, whatever it is that puts you in contact with your deepest desires.

"In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us," Annie Dillard writes in Teaching A Stone To Talk. "But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other."

In the wilderness the desire for esteem is stripped away and bigger desires are made visible: The desires of the heart (to live in loving connection with others) and the desires of the soul (the yearning to serve some transcendent ideal and to be sanctified by that service).

When people are broken open in this way, they are more sensitive to the pains and joys of the world. They realise: Oh, that first mountain wasn't my mountain. I am ready for a larger journey.

Some people radically change their lives at this point. They quit corporate jobs and teach elementary school. They dedicate themselves to some social or political cause. I know a woman whose son committed suicide. She says that the scared, self-conscious woman she used to be died with him. She found her voice and helps families in crisis. I recently met a guy who used to be a banker. That failed to satisfy, and now he helps men coming out of prison. I once corresponded with a man from Australia who lost his wife, a tragedy that occasioned a period of reflection. He wrote: "I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife's death."

Perhaps most of the people who have emerged from a setback stay in their same jobs, with their same lives, but they are different. It's not about self anymore; it's about relation, it's about the giving yourself away. Their joy is in seeing others shine.

In their book Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe tell the story of a hospital janitor named Luke. In Luke's hospital, there was a young man who'd got into a fight and was now in a permanent coma. The young man's father sat with him every day in silent vigil and every day, Luke cleaned the room. But one day, the father was out for a smoke when Luke cleaned it.

Later that afternoon, the father found Luke and snapped at him for not cleaning the room. The first-mountain response is to see your job as cleaning rooms. Luke could have snapped back: I did clean the room. You were out smoking.

The second-mountain response is to see your job as serving patients and their families. In that case you'd go back in the room and clean it again, so that the father could have the comfort of seeing you do it. And that's what Luke did.

If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated - keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.

I can now usually recognise first-and second-mountain people. The former have an ultimate allegiance to self; the latter have an ultimate allegiance to some commitment. I can recognise first-and second-mountain organisations, too. In some organisations, people are there to serve their individual self-interests - draw a salary. But other organisations demand that you surrender to a shared cause and so change your very identity. You become a Marine, a Morehouse Man.

I've been describing moral renewal in personal terms but of course, whole societies and cultures can swop bad values for better ones.

I think we all realise that the hatred, fragmentation and disconnection in our society are not just a political problem. They stem from some moral and spiritual crisis.

We don't treat one another well. And the truth is that 60 years of a hyper-individualistic first-mountain culture have weakened the bonds between people. They've dissolved the shared moral cultures that used to restrain capitalism and the meritocracy.

Over the past few decades, the individual, the self, has been at the centre. The second-mountain people are leading us towards a culture that puts relationships at the centre. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavour, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability.

These second-mountain people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. These second-mountain people have found it.

Their moral revolution points us towards a different goal. On the first mountain, we shoot for happiness, but on the second mountain, we are rewarded with joy.

What's the difference? Happiness involves a victory for the self. It happens as we move towards our goals. You get a promotion. You have a delicious meal.

Joy involves the transcendence of self. When you're on the second mountain, you realise we aim too low. We compete to get near a little sunlamp, but if we lived differently, we could feel the glow of real sunshine. On the second mountain, you see that happiness is good, but joy is better.


A culture built on lies
By David Brooks, Published The Straits Times, 17 Apr 2019

Four years ago, in the midst of the Obama presidency, I published a book called The Road To Character. American culture seemed to be in decent shape and my focus was on how individuals can deepen their inner lives.

This week, in the midst of the Trump presidency, I have another book, The Second Mountain. It's become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal.

The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis. College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking. At the root of it all is the following problem: We've created a culture based on lies. Here are some of them.


This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years, we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the centre of their lives. That begins advertising's lifelong mantra - if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that's not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the bestseller list. It felt like... nothing. It was external to me.

The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfilment.

If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you've achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.


This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose weight or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.

It is easy to say you live for relationships, but it's very hard to do. It's hard to see other people in all their complexity. It's hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It is hard to stop performing. No one teaches us these skills.


This is the lie books such as Dr Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go tell.

In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins.

This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open. In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down.

They don't ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighbourhood, one organisation or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It's the chains we choose that set us free.


This is the privatisation of meaning.

It's not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his own values. Come up with your own answers to life's ultimate questions. You do you. The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can't do it.

Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It's a group process.


We pretend we don't tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love - that if you perform well, people will love you.

The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organised around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out.

The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximised. No wonder it's so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder American society is fragmenting. We have taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we've made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live. We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.


No comments:

Post a Comment